SafeCracker Review

I started playing SafeCracker with much anticipation, since I am a fan of many other Dreamcatcher games. And I was not disappointed. Dreamcatcher seems to have focused on a genre that has been overlooked for some time -- the "adventure puzzle" game. In most good adventure games -- like Myst, Riven, Zork Nemesis, etc. -- the player can easily become caught up in the game; this is certainly true of SafeCracker. The first-person 3D graphics are terrific, the 360-degree motion lends a sense of reality, the "loop-track" background sounds provide a sense of eeriness as well as urgency, and you become involved to the point that you may forget where you really are. On the other hand -- unlike the other games mentioned -- the genre that I refer to as "adventure puzzle" games focuses NOT on the plot, not on some story line, or some other attempt to go "beyond" the puzzles, but rather on the puzzles themselves. SafeCracker definitely fits this description.

Other single-player games of this ilk include Jewels of the Oracle, Jewels II, and Karma (all distributed by Dreamcatcher). If you've enjoyed any of those, you'll certainly enjoy SafeCracker; and if you're not familiar with them, there's still a good chance that SafeCracker will give you hours of enjoyment and challenge.

The premise of SafeCracker is that you are a highly trained security specialist, applying for a position as head of security at a prestigious security company. Their primary business is to manufacture safes -- but not just any safes! Their safes are custom-made, and range from the fairly standard "iron strongbox" safe to some of the most ingenious hidden-safe designs imaginable. As part of your job application, you must break into the premises of the Crabb and Sons security firm at night, navigate through a 3-story building, and find and open a series of safes (almost 40 in all), proving your worth. To add to the task, you have a limited amount of time (obviously, since you have to do this "overnight) in which to perform your task.

One of the first things you notice, when playing SafeCracker, is the outstanding user interface. (One "gotcha" right up front: the game plays in a 640x480 window, which is pretty darn small when working with a 1024x768 resolution or greater. I recommend using something like QRes, which can be set to change your resolution on the fly when starting the game, and restore it when you leave the game.) The artwork has been done for the user to enjoy. In fact, one of the things that impressed me was HOW MUCH time was spent on doing graphics for things that didn't "play" into the solution of the game. They were there for the sake of drawing the player into the game -- making it a reality, if you will. More on this in a minute. The accompanying "sound bytes", as you traverse the building and interact with the objects your find, add yet another level of engrossing realism to the game.

As you initially break into the building, and then begin travelling through the various floors and rooms, you encounter various clues (sometimes in the form of papers or books lying around), most of which pertain to opening one or more of the safes in the building. Rarely are these safes of the "standard" kind where you simply spin a dial to the required combination. (And when you do encounter the one or two safes of this kind, the challenge is to figure out the combination, based on clues elsewhere in the game.)

More often than not, the first part of solving any of the safes is to figure out what is required. You may, for example, encounter a safe that simply has a picture on the front; or one which looks more like a slide projector than a safe. And many of the safes are "hidden" -- either literally hidden (i.e., out of sight), or simply disguised as normal pieces of furniture. What made the game even more fascinating for me was that, unlike many similar games, there are dozens of "red herrings" throughout the game.

For example, the user interface uses the fairly standard "grabbing hand" pointer to indicate that a particular object might be "acted upon". Except, in SafeCracker, that "action" may be very little, and may not contribute to the game at all! You may, for instance, encounter a locked closet door. The cursor changes to a hand, so you are SURE that there is some way to get into that closet. When you click on it, the doors shake, and there is a rattling of the locked doors. There MUST be a clue here! Only, after coming back time and time again, you finally realize that this little "interaction" was added simply to immerse the player further in the environment of the game. In other words, SafeCracker doesn't "give away" the game, simply by when the cursor changes, or when some object responds to a click.

In like manner, there are many, many objects that you may pick up in the course of your investigation which have NO EFFECT on the game at all, and which you will still be carrying in your inventory at the end of the game. (Hint: you'll never need the cream cheese you can take from the refrigerator in the kitchen!) But once again, it adds to the immersive quality of the game, since you are never quite sure what objects to take, where to use them (if at all), and when to come back to some object to which you were initially denied access -- if at all.

Another surprising twist is that most "adventure puzzle" games are either very linear (i.e., you must solve things in a precise order), or very random (nothing is related to anything else, and you can solve puzzles in any order at all). SafeCracker is an interesting combination of both. On the one hand, it is not linear -- you can navigate through the building, moving from room to room, and solving or skipping puzzles as you encounter them. On the other hand, once you have solved the game and start to mentally "backtrack", you will realize that you could not have reached the end of the game unless you had finished solving all other puzzles first (many of which depend on the solution of previous puzzles).

Lastly, with regard to the user interface, the game is played in a "window" that consists predominantly of your first-person view as you traverse the building. However, around that view are additional areas containing the standard inventory list (i.e., items you have picked up), a clock that gives you an idea of how much time you have left, a progress indicator showing what percentage of the total game has been solved, and (extremely helpful for me) a compass. For some reason, even though I have a good sense of direction, I got terribly turned around on my first trip through the house, until I began watching the compass and getting a better "bearing" on where I was going. (You'll also find complete blueprints to all three floors of the building somewhere within the building itself -- and the compass helps even more in that regard.)

A word about the difficulty of the various puzzles: If you are looking for a game like Riven or Grand Inquisitor that will give you 40 or 50 hours of play, you'll be disappointed with SafeCracker. (I believe that the developers suggest less than 10 hours.) The puzzles are not that intricate, although I can say with a fair amount of certainty that there will be a few that may take a while, just because they are not obvious. There is one (and only one!) "sliding tile" puzzle, but even that is done in a way that takes it a bit beyond the standard sliding tile puzzles that are so solvable so quickly. (In this case, you must rearrange the tiles to form an art painting, so there is no immediate relationship between the tiles once they've been mixed up.)

Many of the puzzles can be solved using "brute force". That is, if there are a limited number of combinations of switches to flip, lights to light, or dials to turn, you can -- by trying all combinations -- eventually solve that puzzle. But it should be noted that EVERY PUZZLE has a hint, a clue, or even a total solution located somewhere within the building -- most frequently, inside ANOTHER safe (which is where the bit of linearity comes in). So unlike a game such as Jewels or Karma, where almost all of the puzzles can be solved in the immediate room, the safes in SafeCracker often cannot be opened until some other piece of information is retrieved from elsewhere in the building.

Also, not all of the safes are obvious safes. You may enter a room and find nothing at all that looks like a safe. And there may be none! But there may be one or more "hidden" safes. What's behind that picture? Is that file cabinet REALLY just a file cabinet? SafeCracker truly requires the user to navigate through the building in as close a manner as possible to someone whose purpose is to actually break into the building, and find and open ALL safes in the building.

Very few of the safes "repeat" (in terms of the logic required to access/open the safe), although there are a few -- mostly early in the game. I believe that this is actually a help to the user, giving them an added boost of confidence, instead of stymying them right off the bat. It is specifically due to this wide range of puzzles -- rather than the fewer-but-impossible puzzles often encountered in 40-50 hour games -- that SafeCracker can be an attractive game for the whole family. While the very youngest children may not be able to logically solve some of the puzzles, SafeCracker makes a good game for anyone from about 10 to 80!

The game ends when a "final safe" has been located, solved, and opened. It is inaccessible throughout most of the game, and requires that ALL other safes be solved first.

The one down-side to SafeCracker (and something quite common to this genre of games) is that the replayability is effectively zero. Once the safes are solved, all of the searching and all of the indecision and uncertainty is over. About the only game I've seen where this is creditably possible is something like Shivers, where objects are actually rearranged each time the game is played.

All in all, I enjoyed SafeCracker thoroughly. I found myself wishing that, rather than a 3-story building, I had about a 10-story building to work through! Kudos to the developers for a fine integration of graphics, sound, puzzles, and a total "environment".

-- Frank Nicodem